Excerpt from CALL ME COWBOY, March 2006

PROLOGUE

Cotton Creek, Texas

The stairway creaked, and Priscilla opened her eyes. It was dark, and someone big was carrying her.

"Daddy?"

"Shhh, baby girl. It's okay. I have you."

Only the Snoopy night light lit their way.

"Where are we going?"

He shushed her. "Go back to sleep, honey."

Priscilla rested her head on her daddy's chest, nuzzling her cheek against the soft flannel of his shirt, feeling the steady beat of his heart, the familiar buckle in his step as he limped toward the front door.

She yawned. "I'm really tired, Daddy."

"I know, baby."

Priscilla didn't want to get up. She wanted to go back to her bed, with its Pound Puppies sheets and bedspread.

As they stepped outside and Daddy carefully closed the front door, the night air cooled her face and her bare toes.

A hoot owl called from the trees, and a doggy barked in someone else's yard.

"It's cold, Daddy. And it's dark."

"Everything is going to be just fine, honey. You wait and see." Daddy carried her for a while, down the driveway and to the street, where he'd parked his truck.

The engine was running, and the heater made it all warm and cozy.

"I have a pillow and blanket for you," he told her. "Why don't you try and go back to sleep. We have a long drive ahead."

"Where are we going?" she asked as she crawled across the seat.

"To a happy place," he told her as he climbed into the pickup and closed the door.

Priscilla looked over her shoulder and out the back window. She could hardly see the house, until a light went on in the upstairs window.

"Where's Mama?" she asked. "Why isn't she going with us?"

"Go back to sleep, honey. We'll call her in the morning and you can talk to her."

They drove all that night and the next day, but they never did stop and call Mama.

And they didn't talk about her anymore either.

 

CHAPTER ONE

Twenty-two years later--

Priscilla Richards wasn't in the party spirit, but she held a full glass of champagne and went through the social motions--the feigned smiles, the required chitchat.

Outside, the night was bright and clear. Inside, the penthouse was elegant, the d�cor festive.

Byron Van Zandt, an investment banker, had spared no expense in throwing a first-class celebration for his daughter Sylvia's recent promotion. He'd even hired a violinist through the Philharmonic. So it wasn't any wonder that the mood of those in attendance was upbeat.

Well, not everyone's.

Priscilla was ready to thank her host and go home.

But not because she wasn't happy for the young woman of honor.

She and Sylvia had met at Brown University, where they'd both graduated with a master's degree in literary arts. Then they'd landed dream jobs at Sunshine Valley Books, a small but growing publisher that specialized in children's literature.

Being colleagues had only deepened their friendship, so there was no way Priscilla would have made an excuse to stay home, where she'd prefer to be.

She just wished she could be more enthusiastic for her best friend's sake.

"Hey," Sylvia said, making her way to Priscilla's side with a half-filled flute of champagne. "You're finally here!"

"I wouldn't miss it." Priscilla managed a weak but sincere smile. "Congratulations on the promotion."

Sylvia, with her dark hair cropped in a short but stylish cut, nodded toward Priscilla's full glass. "I hope that's not your first."

It was, so she nodded.

"Drink up, Pris. You can crash here. No need to worry about going back to Brooklyn tonight."

"Thanks for the offer, but I need to get home. In fact, I'm going to cut out early."

Sylvia drew closer and studied Priscilla intently. "You know, I'm starting to worry about you."

"I'll be okay. Really."

Apparently Sylvia wasn't convinced, because she crossed her arms and shifted her weight to one leg. "I know you adored your father, Pris. And it's normal to grieve. But I hate to see you so down. Maybe you ought to talk to a doctor and get some medication. Or better yet, why don't you make an appointment with a professional, like a minister or a counselor?"

It wasn't grief that had knocked her for a loop.

Priscilla placed an arm around Sylvia and gave her an affectionate squeeze. "Thanks for the advice. But all I really need to do is bite the bullet and go through my dad's belongings. I'll be fine after that."

"Does that mean you'll be returning to work soon? Ever since you took that leave of absence, I haven't had anyone to gossip with. And right now I think the new receptionist is sleeping with Larry in Marketing."

"Syl, you never gossip."

"Only with you." Sylvia took a sip of champagne. "So when are you coming back to work?"

Up until last night, Priscilla had planned to go into the office on Monday morning.

Now she wasn't so sure. "I may need to request another week or so."

Sylvia clucked her tongue. "Aw Pris. Come stay with me for a hile. You've been cooped up in that brownstone for months and need a change of scenery. We can make fudge and eat ice cream, which always makes me feel better. And we'll pull out my entire collection of Hugh Grant DVDs."

"Thanks, Syl. Let me take care of a few things, and I'll take you up on it. But no more Hugh Grant movies."

"How about Mel Gibson?"

"Only if he's wearing a white cowboy hat and boots. I'm leaning toward the John Wayne type." Someone who didn't remind her of her father.

"Mmm. Mel in a cowboy hat. I'll see what I can do." Sylvia chuckled, then changed to a serious tone. "Can't you wait and go through your dad's belongings in a couple of weeks?"

"No, I'm afraid not." Priscilla's curiosity was fast becoming a compulsion to find answers to the questions she'd had. Questions she'd been afraid to voice.

"Well," Sylvia said, "it must be a relief to know your father isn't suffering anymore."

The last few months, as cancer had wracked his body, Priscilla had taken time off work to care for him. It had been a drain to see him waste away, to know how much pain he'd suffered.

"You're right, Syl. He's in a better place."

"And there's another upside," her friend added. "He's with your mom now."

Priscilla nodded. It hadn't been any big secret that Clinton Richards had been devastated after losing his wife more than twenty years ago. And rather than look for another woman to love, he'd devoted his life to his daughter, to her happiness and well-being. In fact, when Priscilla had been accepted to Brown University, he'd moved to Providence, Rhode Island, just to be close to her. And when she'd landed the job with Sunshine Valley Books, he'd relocated again--to New York. Fortunately, as a self-employed web site designer, he worked out of the home and had a flexibility other fathers didn't have.

Priscilla hooked her arm through Sylvia's and drew her toward the front door. "Listen, Syl. This has been a great party, but I really need to get home."

"Oh, no you don't." Her friend lifted a nearly empty champagne flute. "You need to finish that drink and mingle."

"Actually my stomach has been bothering me the past couple of days." Okay, maybe not for days, but ever since last night, when that unsettling dream woke her at two in the morning. And it had intensified when she'd padded into her father's bedroom and begun to dig through his cedar chest.

"I'll bet it's the stress you've been under that's affecting your stomach," Sylvia said.

"Probably." But it was more than grief bothering her. She just wished she could put her finger on exactly what had knocked her digestive system out of whack.

She did, however, have a clue.

The mild-mannered widower who'd loved her had taken a secret to his grave. A secret Priscilla was determined to uncover.

Would she feel better if she confided in Sylvia?

Maybe, although now didn't seem to be the time.

On the other hand, keeping Sylvia worried and in the dark might put a damper on an evening when she ought to be celebrating.

Priscilla took a long, deep breath, then slowly let it out. "I had a dream last night and woke up in tangled sheets and a cold sweat."

"A nightmare?" Sylvia asked. "Those can be pretty upsetting."

"Yes, they can. But so can a repressed memory, which is what I think it was."

Sylvia stopped a waiter walking by, placed her flute on his tray and gave Priscilla her undivided attention. "What do you mean?"

She wasn't sure. At first, it had been a niggling, restless feeling. Then there'd been a collage of images.

A two-story house. The scent of vanilla and spice. Laughter. Bedtime stories.

Loud voices and tears.

A marble-topped table crashing to the floor.

The remnants of her dream, of the memory, of her odd discovery, settled over her like a cold, wet blanket.

She tried her best to shake it off, at least long enough to level with her friend. "When I woke up, I felt so uneasy that I went into my father's room and opened the old chest where he kept his things and went through it."

"What did you find?"

"Evidence that my name might not be Priscilla Richards."

"Wow." Sylvia furrowed her brow, then cocked her head in disbelief. "Are you sure?"

"No. I'm not. But until I get to the bottom of this, I won't be able to focus on anything else. I just wish I knew where to start digging."

Sylvia stood silent, focused. Then she brightened. "Wait here."

"Where are you going?"

Without answering, Sylvia dashed off, swerving to avoid a waitress balancing a tray of hors d'oeuvres, and ducked into her father's study.

Oh, for Pete's sake. Sylvia could be so dramatic. But like a child waiting for guidance, Priscilla remained in the entryway.

Moments later, Sylvia returned and placed a glossy business card in Priscilla's hand. "This is the firm my dad uses for employee screenings."

Priscilla scanned the card.

Garcia and Associates

Elite and Discreet Investigations

Offices in Chicago, Los Angeles and Manhattan

Trenton J. Whittaker

"The agency is reputable and well respected," Sylvia said. "Of course, they're not cheap. But I'd be happy to loan you whatever you need."

"Thanks. But my dad had a healthy savings account he transferred to me before he died. And he also had a good-size life insurance policy. So I'll be all right."

"For what it's worth," Sylvia added, eyes growing bright and a grin busting out on her face, "I met that guy--Trenton Whittaker--at my dad's office the other day. And he's to die for. You ought to hear the soft Southern drawl of his voice. It's so darn sexy it'll make you melt in a puddle on the floor."

Priscilla rolled her eyes. "When I choose a private investigator, it won't be based upon his looks or the sound of his voice."

"You can't go wrong with Garcia and Associates. They're a top-of-the-line agency. And if the P.I. also happens to be single and hot, what's the problem? Heaven knows your love life could sure use a shot in the tush. And believe me, Pris, this guy will do it. If I weren't involved with Warren, I'd have jumped his bones in a heartbeat."

Priscilla wasn't interested in finding Mr. Right. After all, she couldn't very well expect a happy ever after when she'd had too many questions about once upon a time.

But she took the card and slid it into her purse, figuring she'd give the agency--not necessarily Mr. Whittaker--a try.

Then she handed Sylvia her nearly full glass of champagne. "Congratulations on the promotion. Thanks for inviting me."

"Don't thank me for that." Sylvia placed the glass on a table in the entry. "You're my best friend."

"And you're mine." Priscilla gave her a hug.

"Hey. I just thought of something."

Priscilla waited, poised by the door. "What's that?"

"Remember that young adult book you edited a while back? The one about the rodeo cowboy?"

It had been well written, the settings vivid, the character a handsome young man with true grit and brawn.

Priscilla nodded. "What about it?"

"You told me that you could see yourself riding off in the sunset with a cowboy like that."

"So? I didn't mean anything by it." And she hadn't. It had just been a dreamy, romantic comment. After all, Priscilla loved the Big Apple and thrived in a cosmopolitan environment. She even found the hustle and bustle thrilling. So for that reason alone, when it came to a lover, a cowboy was out of the question.

"I saw the way your eyes lit up, the way you placed your hand on the cover of that book. You practically caressed the cowboy on the front. That was your heart speaking, Pris. And have I found the perfect man for you."

"What are you talking about? A man is the last thing in the world I need right now."

"How about a Manhattan-based P.I. with a slow Southern drawl? A man they call Cowboy."

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